Story of Burkett’s Ride: Automobile Goes on the Warpath and Creates a Sensation in Nebraska Town

This dramatic headline appeared over an article in the Omaha Daily News about a trip made by H. E. Fredrickson into Blair, Nebraska, in his new steam-powered automobile in October of 1900. The story, slightly edited, goes something like this:

Undertaker H. K. Burkett had impressed Fredrickson and his automobile into service to get to Blair on an urgent call, inasmuch as he could not catch a train until much later in the day.

Fredrickson deposited Burkett at the place where he wanted to go and then went downtown to snatch a bite to eat. He stopped his vehicle before the eating place and forgot to hitch it. The sight of the horseless wagon naturally attracted a whole lot of attention, and before long five-sixths of the population was gathered about it.

“By gum, this yere’s a funny wagon,” remarked a prominent citizen as he stored a hunk of tobacco in his face. “Where do you suppose he hitches his mules?”

This interesting topic was being discussed with gusto when the automobile gave vent to a snort of steam. Most of the crowd drew back, but the bolder spirits held their ground. “Gee whiz, Bill, the buggy’s on fire,” yelled one of them. “Go call the fire company.”

He went closer to the vehicle to investigate and accidentally struck the propelling lever. The machine started and the investigator grabbed hold of it to stop it, but it pulled him along.

“Hully gee, help,” yelled he when he had been pulled some thirty feet down the road. During the whole performance up to this time, the crowd had stood rooted to the spot with their eyes sticking out of their heads. The yell awakened a dozen sturdy men, however, and they started off in pursuit of the mobile and its victim.

Half of them grabbed hold of the wheels and tried to pull it to a stop. The other half went to the front and pushed against it. The latter were run over for their pains, inasmuch as the automobile persisted in going ahead.

It was a moment of great excitement, and Fredrickson, attracted by the hubbub, rushed out from the restaurant. He saw his mobile jauntily sailing down the road with the mob of men clinging to it and sized up the situation in a moment. He touched only the high spots in pursuit and meanwhile yelled, “Pull back the lever. Pull back the lever!”

Somebody heard him and yanked back the lever. He, however, pulled it back too far. The mobile halted for just an instant and then backed suddenly, throwing a half a dozen men to the ground and running over them. A score grabbed hold of the machine again, while the rest of the crowd stood in the middle of the road trying to stop it with upraised arms and jumping up and down. The mobile paid no attention to them, and Fredrickson was about ready to bid it adieu when it suddenly ran up against a store and came to a halt. No damage had been done to the machine, but half a dozen Blair citizens believed that they had broken arms or legs until a physician told them they were all right.

A shudder ran through Fredrickson when he was relating his experience upon his arrival in this city. “For a few minutes, I was mighty glad that I had an undertaker with me,” he declared.

Carhenge

Someone asked me the other day why I’ve never mentioned Carhenge on this website.  For the record, I love Carhenge, that ultimate example of repurposing located in Nebraska’s Sandhills, but I try to avoid re-hashed information and, let’s face it, Carhenge has been written about extensively.

In case there is someone not familiar with this particular tourist attraction, Carhenge is a built-to-scale replication of England’s Stonehenge using cars in place of stones, and it is absolute genius.  The artist behind the creation is a man named Jim Reinders, and he actually spent time in England studying Stonehenge.  According to the Carhenge website, Reinders and some family members created the sculpture in 1987 as a memorial to Reinders’s father.  Reinders said it was built with “blood, sweat and beers,” as many of the best things are.

The “heel stone” is represented by a ’62 Cadillac, but there is a wide variety of automobiles used throughout the installation, everything from a Gremlin, to a Willys Jeep Truck to a 1960 Plymouth with enormous tailfins:

 

The site is popular with tourists, as it should be, and has high ratings on Trip Advisor.  It also received a Traveler’s Choice award for 2020 from that online travel company.  Here is the funny part though, many people hated it when it was first built and were hellbent on destroying it.

Even though the sculpture was located two miles outside of town on private property, the members of the local Planning Commission got their panties in a twist because the land was (gasp) zoned for agricultural use and, obviously, those arbiters of all that is good and tasteful just didn’t appreciate the pile of old automobiles marring the landscape.   In August of 1987, Reinders even received a letter from a Nebraska Assistant Attorney General informing him that his creation was considered a junkyard under state statutes, that it was not in an area zoned for junkyards, and that he had until the following Saturday to tear it down. Nebraska is a large state, and I do not know why some squishy bureaucrat located 367 miles away in the state capital inserted himself into the situation.

Luckily, this unique and quirky attraction found a degree of local support.  A group call “Friends of Carhenge” was founded, concessions were made to soothe the fragile egos of the government officials, and Carhenge is now an award winner and a triumph for the little guy.  I read an article from the following year, 1988, in which Reinders found one more hilarious way to tweak the bureaucrats.  He told the reporter that he was planning a trip to China and was considering constructing a “Great Wall” out of cars in Nebraska for his next project.  Fantastic.

FOP Radiator Badge

It has been awhile since I’ve posted anything because we’ve been distracted by the week-long craziness known as Nebraska’s Junk Jaunt. The Junk Jaunt is a trail of approximately 500 miles, filled with hundreds of garage sales and antiques vendors, that winds along the Loup River and through the scenic Sandhills. People come from all over to treasure hunt, alone or in packs, and the whole thing has a fun, festive atmosphere.

The selection did not disappoint this year. My daughter is a World War II buff, and she was understandably thrilled to find an Air Force foot locker from that era with a leather flight suit still in it. My favorite automobile-related find was probably this item:

This is a radiator badge and, as you can see, it reads, “Associate Member Fraternal Order of Police”. It is no surprise that it has some damage. It would have been wired to the front end of an automobile where it would have faced considerable wear and tear, and it is old. No older than 1915, however, because that is when the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) formed after founders witnessed how firefighters bettered their working conditions by negotiating as a group.

I like the symbolism of the FOP’s star emblem. It is hard to make out on my badge, but the symbols on the two legs of the star are an open eye on the left and clasped hands on the right. According to the FOP website, “The open eye is the eye of vigilance ever looking for danger and protecting all those under its care while they sleep or while awake. The clasped hands denote friendship. The hand of friendship is always extended to those in need of our comfort.” The blue field represents the thin blue line protecting those served by law enforcement, and the motto in the center of the star reads “Jus, Fidus, Libertatum”. This Latin phrase translates to “Law is a Safeguard of Freedom”.

Amphicar (The Car Nebraskans Need Right Now)

Although this Amphicar was not American-made, it was marketed primarily to Americans. It was an amphibious automobile invented by German Hans Trippel and was produced from 1961 to 1968.


Amphicar at Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska

Twin propellers (located under the rear of the car) were easily engaged with a shift knob.

The front tires acted as rudders and special seals around the doors and engine compartment kept the water out. It had stamped steel body panels, a Porsche transmission and suspension made by Mercedes-Benz. Power was supplied by a rear-mounted 43-hp 4-cylinder Triumph engine. Newspaper accounts vary, but top land speed was around 65-70 mph with water speed somewhere around 10-12 mph.

“Chemist Goes By Water in His car.” The Sidney Herald Morning Sun, 25 April 1965, p. 17.

The Amphicar was apparently seaworthy, crossing the English Channel from Calais to Dover in 5.5 hours in 1962. Back in the states, a salesman demonstrating one at a lake in Texas said, “Most of the time people think I’m either a drunk who has run his car off into the lake, or some crazy nut.”

McGuire, Michael. “Cars Ahoy, Hail Drivers During Plunge in Lake.” Chicago Tribune, 1 August 1965, p. 1.

Another story about the Amphicar from 1962 asked, “Who needs bridges anymore?” Good point! With many bridges destroyed by historic flooding, thousands of Nebraskans would find an Amphicar extremely useful about now.

1963 Amphicar Ad

Sources:

“Amphicar Demonstrator Discovers People are Curious.” The Irving Daily News Texan, 7 October 1962, p. 9.

“Amphicar – Hans Trippel Knew How to Make Hope Float.”  Fort Myers News-Press, 6 October 2004.

“Chemist Goes by Water in His car.” The Sidney Herald Morning Sun, 25 April 1965, p. 17.

Hill, Michael.  “What Has Four Wheels and Floats?” Chicago Tribune, 8 January 1995, p. 6.

“Hope Wasn’t Enough to Make This Idea Float.” Chicago Tribune, 24 October 2007, p. 2.

Ianfield, Peggy.  “Amphicars Startle Cape Coral Area.”  Fort Myers News-Press, 29 July 1962, p. 5-C.

McGuire, Michael. “Cars Ahoy, Hail Drivers During Plunge in Lake.” Chicago Tribune, 1 August 1965, p. 1.

 “Sports Car – Boat Too.” The Nashville Tennessean, 7 October 1962, p. 6-C.

Nebraska Junk Jaunt 2018

If you are able to schedule a “junk vacation” (junk-ation?) this month, head to Nebraska for the 15th annual Junk Jaunt.  The Junk Jaunt is 500 miles of garage sales and purveyors of all kinds of antiques and junk, over 700 vendors in all.

There are several must-shop hot-spots along the way, and one of the best is the village of Cairo, which is pronounced KAIR-oh, like the syrup.     Most of Cairo is covered with vendors, including main street, the ball field, the Community Center and a large field next to the Lutheran Church.  To find all things gas, oil and automotive, just look for this DT Vintage sign in the “Big Ass” Shed north of the ball field.